Preface: I am by no means an expert on vintage compacts. I’m more of a somewhat obsessed research geek who likes sharing what I uncover in the hopes of enticing fellow geeks into conversation. Come on, curious compact lovers. Geek out with me. As much as people love mystery, I think sometimes the more you learn about something the more interesting that thing becomes. For me, that’s definitely the case with compacts.
On to the goods on Elgin. The Elgin Area Historical Society reports that the Illinois Watch Case Co. established the Elgin American Novelty Co. as a subsidiary in 1898. Elgin initially made jewelry and lockets. According to the EAHS website, “In 1923 Elgin American entered the ladies’ compact field with a patented ‘powder box.'”
Elgin American Co. sponsored the first two and a half seasons of Groucho Marx’s radio quiz show You Bet Your Life. Between 1947 to 1950, radio advertising had a powerful impact–Roselyn Gerson’s book Vintage Ladies’ Compacts claims the show had to go off the air a few weeks early, as Elgin had sold through its entire inventory. Side note: Gerson’s book features many vintage ads, including at least 18 for Elgin compacts.
In the mid 1940s, Elgin introduced a line of heart-shaped compacts, cleverly sending distributors special Valentine’s Day promotional materials. The most elaborate case features love-birds hovering over a heart inscribed, “Give me your answer do!” obviously targeting gentleman buyers planning a marriage proposal. Other cases bear cupids, hearts, flowers, and “I love you” engraved in multiple languages. In her Overview of American Compacts, Laura Mueller writes, “Elgin hit the jackpot with this case design and occasional ad campaigns.” These sentimental pieces are easy to find and a great starting point for any collection.
Elgin made a number of gorgeous compacts, vanity cases and carryalls. A search right now on ebay for “elgin compact” yields 288 results, ranging from simple goldtone compacts to the elaborate Salvador Dali-designed “bird in hand” case. Leaping gazelles, elaborate enamelled souvenirs, mother-of-pearl and bejewelled beauties, dance cases with tango chains… Elgin made them all. Most vintage women would be hard-pressed not to find something in the Elgin catalog that speaks to them.
Copy from a 1949 ad in Harper’s Bazaar describes a new line this way: Definitely different… They’re here, the “originals” in compact shapes you’ve been wanting. Distinctive in every exquisite detail, these Elgin Americans have the contour allure, the exclusive edge edge on fashion so essential to that “yours alone” look.
While Elgin made compacts for the masses, the company recognized that women wanted their own personal style. So they offered designs to suit a wide range of tastes and budgets. Elgin produced and marketed compacts under a variety of names: Elgin American, EAM, American Beauty, and Clarice Jane. The Clarice Jane cases are smaller and somewhat more ornate–these are some of my favorites.
Look for more discussion about the Dali “Bird in Hand” compact and Elgin’s carryalls in future posts, along with photos of some Elgin favorites from my collection.
Got Elgin facts you’d like to add? By all means, comment. Compact geeks of the world, unite.